The Riyadh-Tehran Rupture

January 5, 2016

A year ago, some Middle East analysts referred to Saudi Arabia’s new leadership as a cadre of youthful, dynamic royals and technocrats. They said that Saudi Arabia is uniquely positioned to rise above the fray of the past decade and begin bridging the considerable gaps dividing the main Sunni nations. They thought that the changes appeared to deepen Saudi Arabia’s links with the United States and make it a more reliable security partner. A year later, the Saudi-led coalition is still battling Yemen’s Houthis with no end in sight. It has recently announced that it will no longer observe the ceasefire agreed last December. More importantly, Riyadh has cut diplomatic relations with Iran. Surely, the setting ablaze of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran constituted a flagrant violation of international law but there will be consequences.

On December 29-30 President Erdoğan visited Saudi Arabia. The official website of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs states the following regarding the visit:
“… Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu met with his Saudi counterpart Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir and held a joint press conference following the meeting. Speaking at the said conference, Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu stated that in the talks between President Erdoğan and King of Saudi Arabia, Salman Bin Abdulaziz, both sides agreed to strengthen bilateral cooperation and exchanged views on the bilateral and regional issues. Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu also drew attention to the agreement reached by the two countries to establish a High Level Strategic Cooperation Council, and said that he welcomes the decision to set up such a mechanism, which Turkey already established with 19 countries, also with friendly and brotherly Saudi Arabia. Speaking at the joint press conference Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir noted that with the said mechanism not only bilateral relations will be strengthened but also regional stability will be boosted.”

The establishment of a “High Level Strategic Cooperation Council” does no longer carry great significance. It has become routine practice. Actually, this could have been called the “Bilateral Commission” but we seem to like such titles and believe that the magic word “strategic” is in itself a key to opening new avenues of cooperation. Turkey had exactly the same mechanism with Syria. The joint communique issued at the end of the first Turkish-Syrian High Level Strategic Cooperation Council meeting held in Damascus on December 22-23, 2009 underlined the desire of the parties to further strengthen their relations on a strategic basis and referred to the similar threats and challenges faced by the two countries. On October 3, 2010 the Council met at ministerial level. Following the meeting there was talk of economic integration. Turkish-Syrian cooperation was presented as a regional model to be followed. All of that has now become a page of our history that the Government is loath to remember.

Much more important than the establishment of the Saudi-Turkish Council is what was discussed in Riyadh in the context of “regional issues”. Because, only three days after the visit, Saudi Arabia announced the execution of 47 people on terrorism charges, including the Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Did the Saudi hosts inform their Turkish guests of their intention to carry out these sentences? If they did, what was their assessment of Tehran’s possible reaction? How far were they prepared to go in case of escalation? What kind of support did they expect from Washington and Ankara? And of course, what was the reaction of the Turkish side?

If the Saudis purposefully refrained from informing the Turkish side of their intention to go ahead with such a high number of executions including one with regional implications, there is a problem. Because, this does not reflect good faith and raises questions of confidence. Thus, they may have taken not only Turkey but probably the US also by surprise. If this is the case, they need to be told that such behavior is unacceptable. Because, such a fait accompli puts those partners on the spot and turns links with Riyadh into a liability more than an asset. If such advance warning had been given, then the situation becomes even more complicated.

The rupturing of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia can only mean further turmoil in the Middle East.

Turkish Government has misread the Arab Spring. Its policies have already caused severe damage to Turkey’s national interests. It should avoid at all cost being drawn into deeper waters by joining the so-called “Saudi-led coalition to combat terrorism”. Even at this very late stage, Government leaders can ask themselves the following question: “Would it have made a difference for Turkey if we had followed a non-sectarian policy; remained above regional conflicts; assumed a peace-building role; continued with democratic reform and upheld secularism?” And, the answer can only be: “Yes, it would have made all the difference in the world.”

“A fault confessed is half dressed.” goes the saying. Nobody is expecting a public confession. A private admission, however, could be a start.

About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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